BASRA, Iraq (AP) – It’s almost dawn and Zainab Amjad has been up all night working on an oil rig in southern Iraq. She lowers a sensor into the black depths of a well until sonar waves detect the presence of the crude that fuels her country’s economy.
In another part of the oil-rich province of Basra, Ayat Rawthan oversees the assembly of large drill pipes. These will pierce the Earth and send crucial data about rock formations to screens located a few meters (feet) away that it will decipher.
The women, both 24, are among a handful of people who have avoided the boring office jobs normally given to oil engineers in Iraq. Instead, they chose to become pioneers in the country’s oil industry, donning hard hats to take on the hard work at the drilling sites.
They are part of a new generation of talented Iraqi women who are testing the limits imposed by their conservative communities. Their determination to find work in a historically male-dominated industry is a striking example of how a thriving young population is increasingly at odds with the deep-rooted and conservative tribal traditions that prevail in the oil heart of southern South America. Iraq.
The hours that Amjad and Rawthan spend in the oil fields are long and the weather is unforgiving. They are often asked what they do there, as women.
“They tell me the field environment that only men can endure,” said Amjad, who spends six weeks in a row living at the platform site. “If I gave up, I would show them they were right.”
Iraq’s fortunes, both economic and political, tend to ebb and flow with the oil markets. Oil sales represent 90% of the state’s revenue, with the vast majority of crude coming from the south. A fall in prices causes an economic crisis; a boom fills the state coffers. A healthy economy brings some stability, while instability has often undermined the strength of the oil sector. Decades of wars, civil unrest and invasions have stalled production.
Following low oil prices dragged down by the coronavirus pandemic and international disputes, Iraq is showing signs of recovery, with January exports reaching 2.868 million barrels per day at $ 53 per barrel, according to statistics from the Oil Ministry.
For most Iraqis, the industry can be summed up in those numbers, but Amjad and Rawthan have a more granular view. Each well presents a series of challenges; some required more pressure to pump, others were charged with poisonous gas. “Every field feels like going to a new country,” Amjad said.
Given the enormous importance of industry to the economy, petrochemical programs in the country’s engineering schools are reserved for students with the highest scores. Both women were in the top 5% of their graduating class at Basra University in 2018.
At school they were amazed by the piercing. For them it was a new world, with their own language: “drilling” was starting drilling operations, a “Christmas tree” was the top of a wellhead, and “drug” just meant grease.
Each workday he plunges them deep into the mysterious affairs beneath the earth’s crust, where they use tools to observe mineral and mud formations, until they find the precious oil. “Like throwing a stone into the water and studying the waves,” Rawthan explained.
To work in the fields, Amjad, the daughter of two doctors, knew that she had to get a job with an international oil company, and to do so, she would have to excel. State-owned companies were a dead end; there, she would be relegated to office work.
“In my spare time, on my vacations, on days off, I would book trainings, sign up for whatever program I could,” Amjad said.
When China’s CPECC came looking for new hires, she was the obvious choice. Later, when Texas-based Schlumberger sought out wireline engineers, it seized the opportunity. The job requires her to determine how much oil can be recovered from a given well. He passed one difficult exam after another to get to the final interview.
When asked if she was sure she could do the job, she said, “Hire me, look.”
Within two months, she changed her green helmet to a bright white one, signifying her status as a supervisor, no longer an apprentice, a month faster than normal.
Rawthan also knew that he would have to try harder to be successful. Once when her team had to make a rare “detour”, drill another hole next to the original, she stayed up all night.
“I didn’t sleep for 24 hours, I wanted to understand the whole process, all the tools, from start to finish,” he said.
Rawthan now also works for Schlumberger, where he collects well data that is used to determine the drilling route later on. You want to master drilling and the company is a world leader in service.
Family, friends, and even teachers were daunting: What about hard physical work? The scorching heat of Basra? Living on the platform site for months? And the desert scorpions that roam the reservoirs at night?
“A lot of times my teachers and classmates would laugh, ‘Sure, we’ll see you out there,’ telling me I couldn’t attend,” Rawthan said. “But this just put more pressure on me.”
However, their parents supported them. Rawthan’s mother is a civil engineer and his father, a captain of an oil tanker who often spent months at sea.
“They understand why this is my passion,” he said. She hopes to help establish a union to bring together like-minded Iraqi female engineers. For now, there are none.
Work is not without its dangers. Protests outside the oil fields led by angry local tribes and the unemployed can disrupt work and sometimes escalate into violence against oil workers. Faced every day by flares pointing to Iraq’s obvious oil wealth, others denounce state corruption, poor service delivery and unemployment.
But women are willing to face these difficulties. Amjad barely has time to even consider them: It was 11pm and she was needed back to work.
“The drilling never stops,” he said.